‘In the Heights’ Production Designer on How Cultural Accuracy Informs the Film’s Look

In service to the director’s vision on a project, production designer Nelson Coates is an artistic pied piper. “You want to [construct] a visual arc and take people on that journey,” he says.

Having scoured locations in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand for Jon M. Chu’s “Crazy Rich Asians,” the two reunite for “In the Heights.” This time the job was to find areas in Washington Heights that represented the area’s diversity. “You’re trying to do a deep dive into a specific culture, food, furniture, art — the things that are held so dear [locally] that they’re just as important to the storytelling process,” Coates says. The neighborhood includes a mix of Puerto Rican, Dominican and Cuban influences. “So,” the designer continues, “helping delineate those cultures and also making them germane to what you see in Washington Heights was very important to the story.” 

Exploration was key. Coates combed every street of the Heights, examining Bronx architecture. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the stage musical and grew up in the neighborhood, pointed out that Broadway ran through the area. Jewish, Russian and Irish immigrants were on the West Side, and Puerto Rican, Dominican and Cuban immigrants resided on the East Side. With that in mind, Coates looked for differences and commonalities — and what distinguished a midtown deli from a local one — while trying not to do anything too stereotypical. 

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Miranda’s tale of immigration and gentrification, first performed in 2005, arrived on Broadway in 2008, and was nominated for 13 Tony Awards, winning four, including best musical. The story, adapted for the film by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Marc Klein, is just as relevant in 2020 if not more so, given the political climate and considering that gentrification is forcing people out of the area. 

Locations encompassed Audubon Ave, St. Nicholas Ave, Dyckman Ave, Amsterdam Ave and the 170s – 180s. But Coates and his team found some of the actual buildings referenced in the script were too small to accommodate a shoot. Instead, they created facades and built the interiors at Marcy Armory in Brooklyn. “The salon was a big build-on; it only had about 10 feet of the inside,” Coates says. “It’s about getting the details correct — the color, the flavors and making it feel authentic to whatever constituency you’re working with. If I can make it better until the camera rolls, I want to make it better.”

Representation and diversity are important to Coates, who’s also president of the Art Directors Guild. He takes pride in his record leading the union in those areas. “I started the first women’s and first diversity committee for our guild before the Oscars started turning its head to that,” he says. “That was one of the things that I really wanted to push.”

As a production designer, he has worked with film directors including Mimi Leder (“On the Basis of Sex”), Denise Di Novi (“Unforgettable”), Anne Fletcher (“The Guilt Trip”) and Anjelica Huston (“Bastard out of Carolina”). “I like to work with teams that are balanced culturally, ethnically and in gender,” he explains. “To me, that’s a better worldview and makes for a stronger story.” 

Coates adds that a film like “Crazy Rich Asians” has resonance that exceeds the boundaries of entertainment: “Seeing what [that film] does for an entire community and beyond with representation makes you realize how people are presented in media really does affect how they’re treated in real life.” 

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